Emerging: Or, Why Buddhist Dharma is Like Identification With the Deleuzian Virtual In and Through the Lacanian Object a . . .
In previous recent posts, I have argued that Buddhist teachings can be thought of as identification with nonduality (advaita) and emptiness (shunyata), that they are fundamentally anti-reificatory. If those posts were intended primarily for those with no prior background in contemporary philosophy, this post will go in the opposite direction, and explain why I think Buddhism presents a crucial addition to contemporary philosophy, in more directly philosophical language. While usually I feel it’s essential to speak accessibly, there are also times to employ the specialized sub-languages of philosophy because of what they are uniquely able to do, which is imagine virtual worlds. For those who might not know all the terms used, however, what follows might read more like philosophical poetry of a sort, however, rather than just dry technicality, because it’s precisely about why the Buddha’s message can never be reduced to anything like that.
Non-Duality, Or the Path Beyond
And so, let’s start with the notion, developed in these posts, that Buddha’s teaching is a form of identification with the non-dual. But if non-duality is beyond duality and non-duality, then the very notion of binary of any form is a limitation. And this is why I think the issue is more unity and multiplicity, which really underlies duality anyway, for a duality is a clash of two unities, each of which conceals, in its reified fixation on one thing over others, multiplicity. Of course, this duality needs to be overcome as well. The Buddha’s dharma is beyond language.
And this is why I like the single word description of it, which in this case, is damma (Pali) or dharma (Sanskrit). As Carl Olson argues in The Different Paths of Buddhism: A Narrative Historical Introduction (Rutgers, 2006, really great book!), dharma is both “universal cosmic law… and corrective process… both the source of cosmic order and a means of liberation from the world.” (80). It is not something that can be grasped rationally, but rather, intuitively, for it is really a process in which one comes into sync: “In contrast to the rational and analytic type of knowledge associated with empirical consciousness, wisdom (prana) is nonrational and intuitive… intuitive knowledge that serves as a flash of insight into the nature of everything” (100).
For the Buddha, logical proof is a craving for certainty. What matters is that one redescribe the world so that it’s possible to see the path to liberation. Giving up certainty, and logical proof, is in fact a precondition to insight into dharma. Attachment to any particular logic, process, or set of ideas, beliefs, or feelings can blind one to what is right in front of one. What is needed is what Freud famously called “even hovering attention,” but not only in relation to one’s mind, but one’s world. This notion is nicely described by the notion of tathata, or “suchness,” the flip-side of seeing the “emptiness” (shunyata) of things, which is to relate to them with openness, trying to see the world without beyond limiting preconceptions). A non-dual, multiplicitous way of relating to the world. Curiosity and openness to the new, identification with the Deleuzian virtual or the Lacanian object a, are perhaps other ways to say this. But what might that actually mean?
Dharma: From the Object a to Differance
Dharma cannot be taught, only modelled, and while one can help others to see it, they need to find it for themselves. And this is why the Buddha continually argued that the only proof or justification needed for his models was found in one’s own experience. Logical argumentation, the authority of others, or various types of ideas, clear or otherwise, all these can help us, but ultimately, they can also seduce us to forms of thinking which serve craving, and in particular, the craving for certainty. Buddhism doesn’t aim at logical proof. Rather, it aims to show a way to see for yourself.
But what it aims to show can only be shown by and through the world and its distinct and discrete objects, entities, experiences, thoughts, feelings, and words, but is ultimately beyond them. And once one sees that there is something beyond all these things, one can identify with it. But because it is a process, rather than a state, thing, or idea, it is hard to describe in words, or even to point to or hold. For language and the world crave, in a sense, in that they try to grasp what always slips out from underneath them, and the result is the impermanence of all things, the creation and cessation of everything in cycles. Only nirvana is beyond this, and the path to this is dharma.
In a sense, we could say that one nirvana-s by dharma-ing. Bending language towards the poetic is one means to help indicate what is there so sync with, and Zen koans and actions in response to questions are another.
What is there to see, what does the Buddha want us to grasp? In Deleuzian terms, we could say that the virtual is that which is continually giving rise to the actual, yet is always beyond it, and it is the pure freedom that is both the substance of everything that is, as well as the ultimate immanent ethical pull towards the betterment of what is, which is to say, greater freedom and liberation. In Lacanian terms, one could say that it is the Real, which terrifies us when it floods over us, and yet, if we identify with the object a, and hence desire like an analyst, we begin to relate to the world in the mode of the not-all, and we transform our symptoms into sinthomes, and ourselves with this, making ourselves into a continual point of separation in regard to images, signifiers, and narratives that try to ensnare us. In Derridean terms, we could say that always listening to the call of the Other, we enter into a continual tangental relation with writing, in the widest sense, by means of the continued ethical attempt to foster the liberation of the play of differance. In fact, Nagarjuna argues that ultimate truth will always slip away from conventional truth, which always deconstructs if taken to the limit, while ultimate truth, beyond words, will not, even if it requires conventional truths, like words, to point us on the path towards this. And for Nagarjuna, this truth is beyond absence or presence, it is non-dual, beyond time and in all time, and yet its precondition, so similar to differance, down to the deconstructive potential it brings.
While Derrida focuses on writing in a way I find too restrictive, and Lacan ultimately on human experience, they remain useful because I think they explain nicely how this identification with the nondual, the void, manifests in relation to language (Derrida), and human experience (Lacan). Deleuze, however, takes this to the next level, by relating these insights to the structure of the physical world.
The Buddhist-Deleuzian Virtual
The virtual is the potential for transformation, liberation, emergence, and freedom within all things. It is beyond things, yet it is what they are composed of when folded against itself. It is the process of folding of the virtual in relation to itself that potentiates the virtual to new forms, new modes of freedom. And here we see that the virtual needs the actual, to lose itself and become folded, in order to find new and different ways of unfolding. Like energy, but like energy and all that it can give rise to, the virtual folds into itself like energy binds itself by means of forces into consistent patterns known as matter. And matter is able to channel more energy into ever more complex forms.
What’s more, just as quantum phenomenon are full of freedom, beyond spacetime, so it is with the virtual. And yet, just like quantum phenomenon, which are impermanent and indefinite, and need the stability matter provides to increase in complexity, so it is with the virtual, it needs to become actual to give rise to new potentials. Quantum phenomenon might be incredibly free in an indefinite way, but only by means of choosing specific forms can they give rise to systems like those seen in matter which intertwine cosmic potentials, not in indefinite blurring and superposition, but as differentiations that are then intertwined. Quantum phenomenon cannot give rise to complex systems like dogs or humans or economies without taking definite stakes in the world, and then intertwining those. Virtuality must “fall” into matter, in order to give birth to itself in more complex forms. The virtual frees itself from the only prison it knows, its ‘mere’ potentiality, by putting itself in prison, and then using this prison to liberate itself in yet more virtual forms. Intensification occurs by going beyond and through its opposite for Deleuze, yet in a manner that in which there are always more than two in any opposition.
It is with this virtual potential for continued emergence of ever more intense ways of being free, of giving rise to new possibilities, that we need to identify with. Nirvana is samsara, it is this world seen from the perspective of its potentials to be freer. And this is why so much of Tibetan Buddhism is about visualization, because by imagining what we could become, even as we know it is only imagination, we practice what we could do.
Meditation: Identification with the Lacanian object a
And yet, along the way, there are obstacles, cravings that tie us down to particular things. The desire for security gives rise to paranoia, the need for absolute proof, to a rigidity in our modes of behavior. This is why Lacan says that the analyst is one who identifies with the object a, the leftover within any system, that which can unravel it. Meditation is a practice of staying with the object a.
For it is when we find that we are caught by a signifier or image that we need to remember that they will never completely capture the Real, something always escapes. And that which escapes is the radical potential for freedom from all particularities. This is why we shouldn’t identify with the Real as such, which can flood us, but rather, with that within the system of the world, the chains of fantasies and signs, which can take us beyond them. If images and signs, and the scripts and desires we produce from them, are like the Buddha’s notion of the distortions produced by karma, then we need to continually liberate ourselves from attachment to these.
This is what Lacan calls the desire of the analyst. This desire is a qualitatively different type of desire than any other described by psychoanalysis. It is not a desire to be something specific, but to always be free of any sign or image that tries to catch one, tie one down. It is the desire for freedom, and it manifests by taking on the logic of the ‘not-all’ which Lacan describes in relation to set theory in his theories of sexuation. Relating to signifiers and images with the logic of the not-all is to not be captured by any of them fully. To view them with detachment. To liberate oneself from signs and images, not by abandoning them, because how would we relate to the world? Rather, we change our relation to them. We convert samsara, the world of illusions, into nirvana, not by leaving the world, by by shifting our relation to it. From symptom to sinthome…
And this immediately brings with it compassion. For the desire of the analyst is the desire of the psychoanalyst, the one who analyzes their own images and signs, but also those of others. It is the one who says encore!, ‘I will not give way as to my desire,’ but rather, I will remain curious as to what newness life can yet produce, to have faith in the future in a radical way, in its potential to give rise to the radically new, and to liberation from suffering by means of this. For liberation does not mean we leave this world, that’s nihilism. Rather, it means we live it fully. Which means we desire, a desire beyond object, a desire for what’s always beyond any object, we become desiring analyzing and analyzing desiring, becoming beyond.
The result is what the Buddha calls bliss (ananda), which is contentment without craving, the freedom to be one’s own happiness in the world. This isn’t the sort of happiness that fluctuates wildly with suffering, or is intensely inmixed with it at the same time, both of which Lacan describes as forms of jouissance enjoyed by the Other at our expense. No, bliss is the management of flows of jouissance to come into sync with their coming and going, and even build new and more complex yet liberated flows thereof.
Of course, Lacan didn’t say this end part, he felt that detachment was all there is. But ultimately, the desire of the analyst must detach from detachment as well, and then non-attachment, for the object a is beyond both of these. And this is why, if you read the notebooks written by Guattari and recently published as The Anti-Oedipus Papers, we see that Felix Guattari’s goal, as Lacan’s star pupil about to turn his start defector, is to pluralize the object a in Lacan’s theories, to radicalize it. And what resulted were concepts like “the body without organs,” a notion which is itself simply a bodily form of the Deleuzian virtual. That is, when Guattari pluralized the object a, he found the Deleuzian virtual, and their work together was born.
The Desire of the Analyst, or Lacan Learns Compassion
Of course, the virtual is just one name amongst many for what they are trying to describe, and that which is beyond language must necessarily have many names within language, for it shows up differently in different locations, overflowing any particular embodiment or conceptualization. Like a four dimensional form, which can ingress in multiple spacetimes in our three dimensional world (for example, the wonderful depiction of the four-dimensional space whale in a recent episode by Futurama!). And it is for this reason that the networkological project refers to this notion, this radical overflowing of the world that is everywhere, nowhere, and beyond, as the oneand, for it exceeds any particular one, be this a thing, concept, person, process, etc., even as it is that of which any one is composed, even if that one never exhausts it, no matter how unified it may appear.
But any one is ever only something which will pass. Processes become static and solidify into contexts, forces, flows, and things, though these can be liberated from within when the things begin to sync with each other and evolve into acting, living, feeling, thinking, liberating forms. And in order to liberate oneself, one needs to understand this, to see the interconnections, the fact that even one’s deepest hopes, dreams, fears, ideas, one’s very body, was produced and is constantly reproduced by a context which is also constantly reproduced in turn. But it all could change. The most liberated state is the one which can adapt to and thrive in the most diverse conditions. This state is free from the world, not by leaving it, but by being in it. By learning to sync with its deep logic, the logic of changing in relation to the world. And helping others to learn this as well. One cannot become liberated alone. We are always in a context, and that context needs to evolve with us, or it will become a fetter to our own liberation. We need to liberate our context so it can better support our own evolution. And we need to support our evolution to better evolve our contexts. This is the Buddhist notion of compassion, the notion that we need to liberate not only ourselves or others, but become liberating as such.
And in a similar sense, Lacan was on to something quite Buddhist when he described the desire of the analyst, because by identifying with the process of analysis is what makes a person into an analyst, which is one who helps others by analyzing. If we substitute the word detachment, we see that a detacher is someone who specializes in detachment, and helps others do the same, for in doing so, they further identify with detachment, they become detachment, they are becoming detaching. And detachment is freedom. I am not this, nor am I that, but I all of these things. I am radical potential, if always already within a limited context that I need to liberate in order to liberate myself, and vice-versa.
And this is why to identify with potential, the virtual, freedom, liberation, purely impure desire, is to necessarily desire the same for others. To not just merely identify with liberation, but become liberation, one must liberate oneself from oneself, and with this, the binary that separates self and other. One is liberation, and in the process, emanates liberation in all directions, to all (you) encounter. By becoming a liberating, so to speak, one helps the world around one liberate itself, and in the process, this helps one to liberate oneself further. Liberation starts in the mind, but must move to others and matter. This is compassion for others, but it is also compassion for oneself. For one cannot truly become liberated without also liberating the world, first mentally, because that is where potential for change comes from, and then emotionally, because that is usually where we fixate, and then at all levels, socially in relation to others, and even potentially at the most obdurate physical forms. For humans are experts at impacting their physical environments with their technology, only, they often are run by what they create, rather than use it for their liberation and that of what’s around them.
Becoming-Liberating: Differencing Repetition, or Beyond Habit
And in all this, we are bound by our habits, liberation is all about breaking habit. Liberation becomes dormant in habit, which becomes dormant in form. Matter is just habits of energy, and habits are just discoveries gone stale. Liberation is creativity. And all creativity needs a medium. In this case, one’s medium is the world in which one finds oneself. It is full of memory, or karma, solidified and calcified into things and habits. From this, one can produce liberation, not into nothingness, or a return to pure quantum indefiniteness. But rather, the introduction of quantum-style freedom into mind, and then matter. Mind is already a start, it is freer than matter, though ultimately, mind is simply the way matter feels from the inside, at least from a non-dualist perspective. Mind is simply the less constrained side of matter. Complexify matter, and you complexify the experience within it, or mind.
And it is dynamic systems which seem to do complexification/liberation best. The more complex a dynamic system, the more free its matter, the more free its mind, and the more this leads to greater freedoms in matter in turn. The evolution of the cosmos can in this sense be seen as the attempt by dharma, the principle of liberation, to give birth to itself in matter, and then transcend it, to free itself from indefiniteness, and then regain the freedom of the indefinite within the definite. Humans are the cutting edge of this evolution. And yet we fall so short of our potentials. It is time to complexify, to liberate ourselves, by becoming liberating.
But first we need to see ourselves differently, not by means of words and things and people, but not despite them either. We need to “look awry,” so to speak, and grasp that which is necessarily beyond grasping. Meditation is practice for this, because at each moment when we meditate, we realize, I am not that thought, not that feeling, and yet, I can hold them in myself, I can wear them like clothing, not deny them, accept them, and learn to be with them, no matter how painful or pleasurable. And in doing so, I gain strength to be beyond limitation, I learn to be beyond the need to be this or that, and I learn to be mentally flexible. This is training for learning to make the world physically flexible. We need an activist Buddhism, one which trasforms the world. Not by merely meditating in the mind, but by making all action meditation, of not giving way as to our desire, transforming craving into liberation.
And most Buddhists will argue that meditation is simply practice for making one’s whole life a meditation. And this is why we need to fully transcend the thought/action binary, one which goes beyond sitting in a monastery. Traditional Buddhist practice seem, to me, to not take its own logic far enough. There needs to be a meditation of pure activity, the activity of liberating, true compassion. This is why Buddhists preach the dharma, namely, to change the world. As Marx said, philosophy should not merely aim to describe the world, but to change it. To liberate it. And to do this, one needs to liberate the means of production, which, as Deleuze and Guattari saw, includes the production of ourselves. There is physical and social production. We need to liberate all of these. Even from the monastery, or the monastery state that once existed in Tibet. For those who accuse Buddhism of quietism, it isn’t in the doctrines as much as how they are put into practice.
And so, meditation in a monastery is not enough. Liberation from craving does not mean not desiring, it means desiring better, desiring liberation, desiring the one type of desire which is more than the drive (which for Lacan always has an object), but which is always and only desire for the intensification of desire, not merely in quantity but quality and kind, and not merely in oneself, but in the world as a whole. This is compassion, bliss, to be desire for desire in all it’s radical impurity, to be the virtual becoming actual becoming virtual becoming intensification liberation. It is dharma.
Complexification and Emergence: Ecological Evolutionism
But a dharma that doesn’t limit itself to the mental. This is why the Tibetan lamas were right to use virtual reality techniques with their visualizations, and to try to transform their physical bodies. But this is still too limited. The entire world needs to be liberated. And this starts from what’s easiest to liberate, the mind, and then works its way outward, to the minds around one, to culture. The physical body liberates itself through these liberations. And while we may yet find ways to liberate flesh and matter, we risk collapse if we mess too much with the ground under our feet.
For it is possible to botch liberation, and this is why always we need to remember that the Buddha urged neither asceticism nor hedonism, but the middle path, between extremes yet making use of the best within them all, that which leads to the best, which is maximum liberation, not from the world, but within it. Which means we cannot destroy it, but build it ever better. And to do this, we need to learn what works best. Experiment, and learn.
And in the process, cultivate that within our environment which produced the path to liberation within us and beyond us. And so, on a physical level, to foster that which leads to evolution of life, that which sustains life, and that which increases the complexity of that which is around it. This is a compassion of matter, and it leads to maximum freedom of matter, a democracy of matter. And just as we should help evolution evolve our world, we should help it evolve us as well, all with the goal of a sustainably evolving and self-liberating world as a whole as a goal. We evolve best to liberation when our world is as well.
This is identifying with emergence. For by identifying with emergence in all its forms, by becoming emerging, we help all around us emerge more intensely, including ourselves. For in fact, we only ever emerge more intensely when we help that which is around us emerges more intensely. Growth and development only ever occurs by means of intertwining. The precondition for this is differentiation, intensification through closing off, but this only leads to intensification at a higher level if it then intertwines back into emergence again.
This is why reification, thingification, differentiation, these are not bad things in an of themselves, but only when seen as ends in themselves. They are potential paths to new forms of freedom. Without the limitation of enclosing itself in a cell, life could never have formed multi-cellular complexity. A step backwards allows two steps forward, while an attempt to go forwards without this will never work. The virtual only potentiates by differentiating and intertwining with itself so as to channel more virtual. Production requires anti-production to produce more, at least in the language of Anti-Oedipus, for this is what gives it the consistency to intensify its complexification.
The balance between production and anti-production is essential, the Buddhist middle path, what complex systems theorists call meta-stability, that which keeps one and one’s environment continually pushing to higher states of evolution, while being careful to safeguard the evolution of all to avoid collapse. For the Buddhist middle-way is between extremes, and this is how non-duality manifests in action, for it is neither extremely this, nor extremely that. It is not too conservative to grow, nor too radical that it expends itself without reserve. It is not cancerous growth without limit, nor paranoid isolation. If, as Hegel famously argued, particularity without the universal is the definition of evil, it is selfishness and paranoia that are evil, and this is precisely what the Buddha taught. Selfishness and paranoia ultimately undercut that which they aim to promote, namely, safety, certainty, and stability at all costs. And growth at all costs is simply this in another form, a desire for complete sameness, or complete nothingness, which ultimately lead to each other. No, it is transformation, the balance between growth and consolidation, which is the middle way. Meta-stability, meta-evolution, growth, complexification.
Evolution, continual evolution of oneself and environment, this is identification with the virtual, the object a, and ultimately, emergence. The conscious evolution of our own evolution. An ethics of meta-evolution, an ethics of life, complexity, and emergence. That is what Buddhism proposes. And the similarities between this and networkological relationalism are profound.
Like the networkological project, Buddhism sees the world as infinite, eternal, fractal, holographic, of infinite potential, in and beyond all reification, in process, ordered by rules which provide a path to liberation, and fundamentally evolving towards complexity. The networkological project views all that is as the intertwining of emergence with itself as relation, a process which potentiates emergence to emerge more intensely from itself by intertwining with this relation to produce complexity. And complexity is simply dormant emergence, which can be used to give emergence structure, or to power further emergence in the process of unfolding in a way which intertwines with other complexity.
If this seems paradoxical, it is. At least, as paradoxical as gasoline is. For gasoline is simply highly compressed energy in matter, which if channelled properly by other matter, can give rise to electricity which can intertwine with inert matter to produce objects in a factory, or with dynamic matter like my body to produce things like these theories. Gasoline is more than just matter, or even potential energy, it is potential theories, potential objects, potential to become many, many things, depending on what it intertwines with. So it is with emergence and its complexification. Emergence self-potentiates by folding with itself, intertwining its folds, and then unfolding in an intertwined way with these folds, and for this is precisely what is meant by complexification. As strange as this might sound, this seems to be the picture painted by contemporary fundamental physics, and many have found parallels between this and a Buddhist worldview.
And this is why one always emerges only with one’s world. One needs to change one’s world to change oneself, because our world evolves us, and vice-versa. But even the desire to emerge can become a trap, if it is reified. For as the Buddha argued, one cannot become attached to this desire, but to emerge from desiring it in the manner of craving, which is what desire turns into when it reifies its object, rather than emerges continually from it. And we can never know what we will desire in the future, but so long as we emerge from it, we will be ok, for desiring emergence is a radically different type of desire, it is desire detached from craving.
This is beyond language. It is virtual, dharma, a path rather than a thing, theory, or a specific set of doctrines. Words, actions, things, they will all betray it. And yet it can be shown by means of these things, if indirectly.
And this is why many Buddhist cosmologies describe the Buddha’s body as an avatar, an incarnation, for the Buddha is beyond any body, and is rather a principle, dharma, an ordering which teaches how to give rise to more liberated and complex ordering. The Buddha is beyond all spacetime, and yet manifests differently, as each needs, in relation to its particular needs, pointing the way towards liberation. The Buddha is like a pull, the pull towards emergence. It is the pull towards life in matter, the pull towards evolution in life, and the pull towards liberation in consciousness. It is emergence, that which is most intensely itself when it is emerging from itself as complexity. It is the tendency within all that is for the better.
This is an ethics, politics, ontology, and epistemology. For if the Buddha urges us to move beyond craving, this is a middle path, one which finds no certainty nor seeks any, but seeks sync with the deeper logic of what is, and finds its only justification in what its praxis produces. Beyond any theory, it is an attempt to emerge from within any theory that allows it to take root. Ethics, politics, ontology, epistemology, these are tools from which a ladder can be forged, the famous Buddhist raft towards liberation which can then be discarded after use, or the famed ladder described by Wittgenstein (but without the limitations that came with his earlier project).
This is a radical post-dialectics, what Benjamin called a “tiger’s leap into the future,” the pulling of oneself into radical futurity, pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps, climbing the rope that one strings, leaping into the Klein bottle and after two twists coming out at oneself yet also beyond oneself. Emergence, Dharma, Virtual, Liberating.
Dreaming, Writing, Acting…
I rarely write like this, in my posts. But this is what it’s like inside my head. And sometimes it is fun to dream out loud, with no constraints. The downside of this is that only those with prior training can follow the philosophical dreamscapes produced this way. The upside is that it’s possible to use language to its fullest, to imagine new realities, dreamworlds, any of which can become reality. By sketching dreamworlds, we imagine what could be. And by translating these back into everyday language, we make this accessible to others.
But why do we need all these forms? Specialized language, like poetry, helps us dream, and dreaming is where we try on new possible realities before we try to make them ever more real. Philosophy, like religion, mathematics, and poetry, is a way to imagine virtual worlds that can influence and even change reality.
But the danger is that these worlds become an end in themselves. And so there’s a need to use the specialized languages that philosophy, math, and other artistic forms provide, to dream with the stuff of the world, and yet, to always find a path back, a path to action, to politics, ethics, and science. If we let the concrete or the imaginary predominate, we lose the middle path, we lose the potentials to maximum evolution and liberation.
And yet, why not simply learn to dream in everyday language? This would be to cut off the most radical tools we have to dream with. No, we need to exploit the full potentials of every medium. And yet, we also need to keep action and worldchanging in mind. The middle path. And this means not the path of the mediocore middle any more than simply the extremes. It means meta-stability, it means, as Deleuze would say, both…and…and….
A liberating requires dreaming and acting, and all beyond and in between. And a writing which aims towards liberation needs not only dream, or only speak towards use and action, but all and neither and beyond and in between. This is language without grasping, and acting without grasping, dreaming without grasping, and going beyond without grasping. It is emerging, or the dream of emergence. And if all writing is a form of acting, and yet, dreaming of acting as well, then we also need to act upon our dreams by doing more than just writing.
But writing is a start, writing calls into our future and challenges our past, and speaks to us anew each present. It is a meditation, a challenge to ourselves and others, to dare us all to dream, and to live up to our dreams.
Of course, all this is much easier said than done. Identifying with the object a, the virtual, emergence, the oneand, these are processes, life-processes, that take continual practice…